By Brendan Mackey and James Watson
It’s now or never if the world’s surviving primary forests are to be saved. Will the international community act or continue to turn a blind eye to our planet’s key life support systems?
Despite their shortcomings, international environmental agreements can provide incentives for national governments and land custodians to turn back the tide of forest destruction. Primary forests, however, remain invisible in forest policy debates and oddly off the radar for most conservation organizations.
Largely free from industrial-scale land uses like logging, mining and ranching, primary forests comprise ecosystems where natural processes still dominate. Yet when we recently analyzed the world’s forest cover we found that only about one quarter of natural primary forest remains, with a mere 5 percent of this found in protected areas.
Only about one quarter of natural primary forest remains, with a mere 5 percent of this found in protected areas.
Despite increasing global awareness, annual rates of primary forest loss remain as high as 2% in some countries.
As half the world’s primary forest is found in developing countries and, surprisingly, half in five developed countries (the U.S., Canada, Russia, Australia, and New Zealand), their conservation is an urgent global concern.
Primary forests provide maximum ecosystem benefits to humans and nature, storing 30 to 70 percent more carbon than logged and degraded forests. Given the desperate need to achieve deep cuts in carbon emissions from all sources, protecting primary forests is now an important and cost effective mitigation action.
Primary forests are also critical for biodiversity conservation, with up to 57 percent of tropical forest species dependent on old-growth forest habitat. Intact forested watersheds generally result in higher quality water than other land uses that can increase sediment and generate up to 50 percent more water flow than regenerating forests.
In the face of a rapidly changing climate, large blocks of primary forest – intact forest landscapes – are highly resilient, provide maximum natural adaptive capacity, and comprise important refugia for many forest-dependent species.
Equally important, primary forests represent the traditional territory of Indigenous peoples such as the Kayapo people of the Brazilian Amazon. Local people have a strong incentive to preserve the forests they depend on for subsistence uses like food, shelter, and medicine.
Satellite monitoring has recently helped to improve the reliability of official government reporting, which provides an important brake on forest loss in countries like Brazil. This improved information is critical, but it remains insufficient in slowing the current land use pressures on primary forest. International policies are needed that provide the right mix of carrots and sticks for national governments.
The time is ripe for primary forests to be formally defined and recognized as a matter of global concern within international negotiations.
Unfortunately, no global treaty even recognizes primary forest and there is no accepted science-based definition. The United Nation’s Forest Forum (UNFF), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change all fail to distinguish primary forests from industrial production forests, degraded forests, or even plantations.
This leads to absurd arguments that industrial logging is not a degrading activity or even deforestation. The lack of an agreed-upon definition means that merely maintaining any kind of tree canopy constitutes ‘forest conservation.’ Key assumptions go unchallenged – including the idea that industrial logging can conserve all forest biodiversity and ecosystem services through so-called “sustainable forest management” approaches such as “reduced impact logging” and “variable retention harvesting.”
There is no evidence for this and indeed substantial evidence exists to show that industrial logging destroys the ecological fabric of what makes a forest rich in biodiversity and resilient to external pressures. Deforestation and degradation from industrial land use can lead to species extinctions, the substantial depletion of ecosystem carbon stocks, and the degradation of water resources. Local communities likewise suffer from damage to the environment that sustains them.
The time is ripe for primary forests to be formally defined and recognized as a matter of global concern within international negotiations. The world community needs forest policies that explicitly seek to avoid any further biodiversity loss or carbon dioxide emissions from primary forest deforestation and degradation. Failure to do so will open the flood gates to the looming agro-industrial juggernaut.
The twenty-first century will bring profound pressures for land use to expand at the expense of primary forest ecosystems. Food demand is projected to double by 2050. Under current farming practices, this will require an additional 1 billion hectares (10 million km2) of farming and grazing land— an area the size of Canada.
One way of countering the pressures arising from the rapidly escalating demand for food, fibre, and biofuels is to record in national systems of economic and environmental accounting the ecosystem services provide by primary forests. Governments can likewise use primary forest protection as a mechanism within multilateral environmental agreements to support sustainable livelihoods for the extensive populations of forest-dwelling peoples, especially traditional peoples, in developed and developing countries.
One thing is clear. Without clear policy intervention, the last large blocks of primary forest will be gone with the next few decades, to the detriment of all life on Earth.
Brendan Mackey is Director the Climate Change Response Program at Griffith University Australia. James Watson directs the Global Climate Change program for the Wildlife Conservation Society and is a Principle Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. Mackey and Watson are co-authors of a new study on primary forests just published by the scientific journal Conservation Letters.